I owe a huge debt to Margaret Placentra Johnston whose book, Faith Beyond Belief, helped me come to peace with religious differences. Johnston’s book helped me come up with my second spiritual principle:
I bless the varied spiritual paths people take, and respect those who embrace other faiths as well as those who reject all religion. The final measure of a human being is not which teaching she embraces, but how she acts.
In Faith Beyond Belief, Johnston argues that just as we go through stages in our emotional and physical development, we also go through different spiritual stages. As children we start in the Lawless stage where we are self-centered, care only for ourselves, and manipulate others to fulfill our own needs. Children usually grow out of this stage. Adult criminals may be stuck in it.
In the Faithful stage, people need definite spiritual answers. They interpret scripture as literal fact, feel a need to bow to authority, concern themselves solely with the welfare of their own group, oppose outsiders, value security, and view God as an eternal and separate Being. People in the Faithful stage may seek the definite answers of fundamentalist religion.
The next stage, the Rational, is marked by skepticism and seeking truth over comfort. Rationalists are concerned about social justice and may reject all religion at the same time that they value integrity and see science, reason and truth as the ultimate authority. Rationalists are often atheists.
Johnston’s fourth stage, the Mystic, is a place where people prefer living in mystery. Johnston’s Mystic seeks unity over truth, and views The Bible and other religious texts as metaphors pointing to greater truths. They bow to the authority of their own intellect while also acknowledging mystical, spiritual authority. Mystics seek out people at all spiritual levels, and may participate in different religious communities. Johnston writes:
A crucial trait distinguishing Mystics is their approach to doubt. A Faithful individual needs simple, immutable answers about the reason for her existence and about what happens after death. The Faithful and the Rational stages are both very confident stages. The former is confident in tradition, the later confident in the self – and in the findings of science. At these levels, Faithful and the Rational-stage person need certainty about being “right.” This need causes him to view everyone who believes differently as “wrong.” The Rational person may feel superior to those at the pre-critical level and may think them foolish for their naivete…. At the Mystic level, though, something new takes hold. The need for certainty is replaced by an ability to live in the questions. Rather than grasp at ready-made answers handed down by others, as the Faithful do, and rather than insist that those answers are false, as the Rational do, the Mystic rejects self-satisfied certainty on matters about which we have no definitive answers.
If Johnston is right about the existence of states of religious development, even if her description of the stages is wrong, then humanity’s thousands of wildly diverging spiritual paths make sense. One group of people isn’t right and the other wrong. We are merely in different stages of spiritual development, and we are each climbing the mountain to enlightenment/salvation/truth the best way we can. Looking at Johnston’s stages, I come closest to being in the Mystic stage with a big dollop of Rational included. How about you?
A NOTE ON THE PHOTO: This marvelous image was harvested from http://publicdomainarchive.com/. A thousand thanks to them for their fine taste and their generosity.